Always these desert sunsets.
Welcome to 2010. My friend Daniel from Austria and I ride out of Hurghada, leave the blue waters of the Red Sea coast, a drive into sunset, my desert sunset roads into the mountains.
We reach Luxor late. Falafel and beer is found. Morning we carry on south the Nile valley, along green plantations and palm trees. The Nile, this longest river on Earth; Egypt has always depended on it since ancient times. Left and right the desert is never far. The farmer cuts clover leaves, food for donkeys used in transporting the produce on the small paths from the fields. Near Kom Ombo a sparrow has fallen in love with her (probably a she) mirror image.
We reach Aswan (wiki) and thus the region that is referred to as Nubia (wiki) which stretches well into Sudan. Falafel and beer is found. The Nile and feluccas lie in peace below us, the sand dunes of the desert rise in the back, sun sets.
Busy day in Aswan.
A full day cruising the Nile in a felucca, a small sail boat, they toured the river in similar fashion for 5 thousand years; this is what we aim for. So I go through the pain of discussing the price, the boatman is a hustler, not just a guy that looks for clients, an abusive hustler, even threatens, says the F-word. I think through my options, shall I throw him in the Nile? He is too strong, shall I call the police? He plays upset as if this is a ferry company with fixed fixed-prices. This is Egypt, a bazaar and I only cut him down by two thirds. Now he comes back, he accepts my price. I should have aimed for even lower. 30 E£ (6 USD)/hour for two boatmen – is maybe still way too high. In rural areas whole families may live on 60 E£ an entire month, this is the rock bottom of the poorest, a boatman for 30 years certainly expects better, but why did he get abusive? Hustler!
Then it is a serene experience, one of the best things done in Egypt so-far. But until a lot later I question myself, think why I stayed so cool with him and did not throw him in the Nile. Maybe I had expected the hassle, or worse hassle, or was just tired from all the fighting for correct falafel prices.
What a nice day then. We see the Tombs of the Nobels on the desert’s edges to the Nile; amazement takes over as I have never seen Egyptian hieroglyph paintings before. For me this is all new.
We hike up to St. Simeon monastery 1km up over sandy dunes, later sail around Elephantine Island; very relaxing indeed a day not on the gas pedal.
We’re back after 5 hours, the boat man starts again, complains about the "low" fare, sobs. Do I give him 25 Piastre more? I feel he is hugely overpaid. Obviously some other days are better for him, some days he has no work; some days are better than others. I can smile; I know he is quite happy.
Daniel and I find beers and good falafel.
Temple of Philae.
Philae (wiki) is pretty amazing; again it strikes me as very special as I have never seen an ancient Egyptian temple before. The temple complex had been dismantled and moved with a lot of effort 1960 from the original lower lying island near-by during the phase of the construction of the Aswan High Dam. It had been partly flooded for some 60 years due to the former British built Low Dam.
But Aswan as much as it marvels, it annoys, it is very expensive, very touristy, with a bit of hassle; you pay three times for parking 10, ticket 50 and boat 30; it adds up, there is hardly a way to escape the rip-off prices of the boatmen, and of course it is racist; Egyptians pay not a fraction of what tourists pay. Better relax and enjoy it, I tell myself.
We turn back north to Luxor, on the left bank of the Nile River. Before we set over to the east side we visit the Temple of Edfu (wiki). What a delight, hardly any tourists, the complex is huge and in an amazing state. As Philae it was built during the Ptolemaic period, 3rd c. BC.
Later after dark we’re back in Luxor, find falafel and beer. Daniel takes the night train to Cairo, departs at 10 p.m., oh then let’s have some more beer. 2 weeks have gone by quickly.
Luxor temple, tea and falafel.
This the 7th of Jan. Having seen the Luxor temple (wiki) this morning, now I sit here in the Suzanne Mubarak gardens, a slightly upmarket cafe, at the Cornish, the Nile just 40 meters away, where the cruise ships are docked, sit in the sun under the diffused blue skies and palm trees, distorted loud Egyptian and western (Mariah Carey) music bleats out of the speaker system, Children eat strange greasy pizza, Egyptians like it here, this 7th of January Coptic Orthodox Christmas.
I have a tea, شَاي shaii, I had one this early morning at 7 in a local street cafe while I was reading my new "The Arabic Alphabet, how to read and write it" book when a hustler sits down near me. At this early hour, all is closed, is a holiday; even more is closed. "Happy New Year!" he goes, "Espagnol or Français, where you come from?"
I ignore him, is too early and too late for New Year babble. "This is not nice, here we talk" - a bit more aggressive, so quickly.
I ignore him again. "Is this a camera?" he asks now.
This is getting much, I finally turn round. "No it is a TV!"
This is more than he can handle, "OK, I go then." I see him down e road chat up another victim, Asian, just a minute after.
The waiter comes, wants 4 E£ (Egyptian Pounds, 1 E£ is ~0.13 Euros, 0.20 USD), I give him 2, is anyway twice the regular price, I acknowledge I am a tourist. "You’re a good man, come back next time, please" he laughs, I pat him on the shoulder.
Days ago in Aswan a guy overshot, tried 32 E£ for 4 teas. I wanted to laugh/cry at the same time, but really just punch him. You must at least judge your tourist to not make a complete fool out of yourself. We paid the usual (tourist) 2 per tea. 1 is the universal tea price in a street cafe. Well here in my slightly upmarket Suzanne Mubarak gardens I pay 7; it comes with distorted clipped Mariah Carey sound. This is still less than a Euro.
1 E£ is also the universal price for a double falafel sandwich, again I am accepting the tourist 2 E£ price tag. There was this guy today, USDs in his eyes, asked 4 E£ on my "Bikam" – "How much" question. I say "La ackoea" – "No my brother". Hand over 2. But my USD guy insists. Ok, I hand him back his falafel pack, take my 2 E£ from his hands; he is speechless, baffled and I say the appropriate "Sukran ackoea" – "Thank You my brother". I go around the corner and buy the most excellent falafel, eggplant, fries, tomato and coriander sandwich. The guy asks for 1.
Falafel has become my main diet here; is just too good and cheap.
Well I cannot stress it often enough. These Temples are the grandest and most impressive ancient monuments and sights I have come across in my life. Pretty much nothing can compare. I know why I always wanted to come to Egypt. There is so much more to come.
This evening (at nice relaxed viewing hours) I visit the Luxor museum (egyptarchive). Come out speechless after a few hours. Need the drink like never before, look and find Genesis pub, restaurant, English/Russian run. Nice place and I meet a few new friends. Sara, Owen, Keli and others, all work on the Karnak Temple archaeological site, photographing, sketching, cataloguing stuff. In Luxor there are two kinds of expats, they explain me, Egyptologists and elderly primarily English women in search for or married to a usually younger Egyptian (about 5000); both are boring. Not so my new friends, we stay long after midnight.
Luxor, desert mountain walk, West Bank, al-Qurn/al-Qurnah. Valley of the Kings.
So I walk on the West Bank, manage to leave them all behind, the tour busses and associated interior, the con artists; I try to reach the Valley of the Kings from the other side, via a desert mountain path, seek the quiet. I set out late, hung over, no preps, no food; a mere bottle of water.
The guy in the ticket office recommends going where everyone goes; "follow the buses". Only on me insisting he points out the route, "May God help you" he smiles. I find the tranquillity soon, a steep, 1000 or more steps climb, up and further up, where the wind blows. Al-Qurn, pyramid shaped; maybe the reason why the valley near-by was chose as the new burial ground by the old kings of the New Kingdom.
No signs, nothing really indicates the track. Some heaps of stones every now and then. Even they get scarcer. A canyon opens to the left/south-west, not mine, the desert plains further south, the Valley of the Queens somewhere there, is not my valley of desire. Eventually my path turns north, slightly, right direction but only kind of, I keep going over the plateau of black basalt stones, without finding the passage back east towards the Nile and the Valley of Kings.
Another canyon right and another one; I feel lost, a bit; I mean: I could always easily backtrack, have a GPS, but the shades are getting longer already. In this land where nothing grows, no animal lives, suddenly a crow rises and circles and then another one, as if sent by the Egyptian Gods it descends on one of the heaps further away, indicating the path. Soon it rises and descends into the Canyon to the right, shows me the way, which I find.
Way too late when darkness falls I arrive at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings. 20 km of walking, sober and sun burnt and sweaty salty and hungry and happy.
Since this day, I consider the crow my totem animal, seems she speaks to me, has spoken to me ever since this day.
(btw. You can click/zoom in on the map above, see where/how far into the desert my path has taken me.)
Next morning, no need for sobering up walks, I am back at the Valley of Kings (wiki), the Royal Necropolis with its hieroglyphs’ decorated tomb-chambers cut in rock, most were raided and robbed already in the antiquity, the tourists now rub shoulders in most, a noisy jostling masses rolling in and out. For extra charge you can see Ramsis VI and Tutankhamun. This is where quiet reins; for 2 minutes even all alone, I spend more time and let the walls speak. The pharaohs, gods and priests come alive, in golden on blue on the ceiling. The walls show birds, owls, crows, ducks, rabbits, snakes, cobras, crocodiles, keys (or light), eyes, cups or baskets, bodies without heads, arms tied, these are prisoners/defeated enemies. The couple leaves again, on the walls I realise women bent over amphorae, worship the cobra, gods with bull’s heads, the red painted sun/disk everywhere, dogs, gods with the croc heads and monkeys around a table, and the eagle, wings spread and the disk, circle, sun. Well I am not an Egyptologist, just enjoying my quiet 10 minutes...
I also go and see Hatshepsut's temple, or Deir el-Bahri, the site of the 1997 massacres on tourists (wiki). But it is overly reconstructed, overrun by tourists and so many parts fenced off.
In late evening light Medinet Habu temple (wiki) presents itself it evening light. The tourist stream seems to abate a bit.
Indeed nothing can compare. No wonder it is overrun.
I return to the east bank. After dark, beer and … is found.
Karnak Temple (wiki) another morning and hot day in Luxor is impressive to say the least again, I enter early but already at 8 the tourists run me over, the obese masses with bad hair cuts, cheap trainers and nervous armpits. Just roll over me. The thing is there is just one Karnak, one Luxor, one antique Egypt in the world. All come to see it, the Germans, Koreans, Russians, Hindus, with respective tours, different languages explain with rubbish wit and joke at every corner ...
The heat rises in the day, the crowds lighten up a bit. A snack bar on site sells tea for 15 E£ (2 Euros), when I refuse I am treated to one for free. I must look different!? I paint the Arabic letters of nuun and yaa’ and associated words in my diary, the days lesson in my read and write Arabic book. Before lunch time I meet Owen and friends again. Their work at Karnak archaeological site is essentially photographing, sketching, cataloguing, stones; that were dug out and put into storage 25 years ago, or are going to disappear under paved tourists’ paths. It is meticulous ground work that may yield insights in some future research. I have no envy.
When the heat is greatest I head back to the massive pillars of the Great Hypostyle Hall, 16 rows, 134 columns, 3 meter each in diameter. What a world wonder, what a site?
Excavating the avenue of the Sphinxes between Karnak and Luxor temples.
2.5 km long through residential areas, apparently the city officials have the go ahead against all resistance. This is the other side of tourism. "Hundreds of low-income families have lost their homes since." "Homes are demolished to increase tourism revenue." "You don’t do archaeology with a bulldozer." "Disneyfication." Go ahead read it. Also read this Luxor's Victorian heritage levelled.